- Published: 30 August 2010
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The word dispensation is the translation of the Greek oikonomia, a word that has become well known in the anglicized form ECONOMY. Crabb discriminates between economy and management thus:
- ‘Economy has a more comprehensive meaning than management: for it includes the system and science of legislation as well as that of domestic arrangements, as the economy of agriculture ... political, civil, or religious economy’.
It is a secondary and derived meaning of the word, that uses it as a synonym of frugality, for a truly economical use of money, sometimes may mean very lavish spending. We can speak of the ‘economy of nature’, and by so doing refer to the operations of nature in generation, nutrition, preservation and distribution of plants and animals. Macaulay writing of David Hume said: ‘David Hume, undoubtedly one of the most profound political economists of his time’.
The Greek oikonomia is made up of the word oikos ‘house’ and nemo ‘to administer’, ‘to deal out’, ‘to distribute’. The word oikonomia is employed by Plato for the management of a household and oikonomia and oikonomos and oikonomeo are found in the LXX. In Isaiah 22:19,21 where the A.V. reads ‘station’, ‘government’, the LXX reads oikonomia ‘stewardship’. Oikonomos translates the Hebrew Al ha Beth ‘over the house’ in 1 Kings 4:6; 16:9; 18:3 and in four other places. We have gone thus far afield in order that the reader may have first-hand information concerning the use of the term from ancient to modern times. We now give a concordance of the three words that are found in the Greek New Testament.
Luke 16:2. Thou mayest be no longer steward.
Luke 16:2. Give an account of thy stewardship.
Luke 16:3. Taketh away from me the stewardship.
Luke 16:4. When I am put out of the stewardship.
1 Cor. 9:17. A dispensation (of the gospel).
Eph. 1:10. That in the dispensation of the fulness.
Eph. 3:2. The dispensation of the grace of God.
Eph. 3:9. The dispensation of the mystery (R.V.).
Col. 1:25. According to the dispensation of God.
1 Tim. 1:4. A dispensation of God which is in faith (R.V.).
Luke 12:42. That faithful and wise steward.
Luke 16:1. Rich man, which had a steward.
Luke 16:3. The steward said within himself.
Luke 16:8. Commended the unjust steward.
Rom. 16:23. Erastus the chamberlain of the city.
1 Cor. 4:1. Stewards of the mysteries of God.
1 Cor. 4:2. It is required in stewards ... found faithful.
Gal. 4:2 Is under tutors and governors.
Tit. 1:7. Blameless, as the steward of God.
1 Pet. 4:10. Good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
‘The Greek word rendered dispensation is oikonomia and refers to the act of administering. By the figure Metonymy, the act of administering is transferred to the time during which that administering is carried on’.
How many ‘dispensations’ are indicated in the Scriptures? This is a question that is more easily asked than answered. Every single believer who has been entrusted with stewardship of truth adds to the number of ‘dispensations’, but this aspect of the matter is of course not intended by the question. When we refer to the different ‘dispensations’ we refer to those subdivisions of the ages, in which the revealed will of God, carrying differing obligations, has been made known, and put into force, and in practically every case, the administration or stewardship of these separate and differing administrations, are found to have been entrusted to some chosen servant of the Lord. Moses, for example, is inseparable from the dispensation of law, and ‘Moses verily was faithful in all his house’ (Heb. 3:5).
The following subdivision of the Purpose of the Ages does not claim to be perfect or complete, but no real distinction in administration has been ignored, though some may have been merged (as for example the special stewardship of John the Baptist, the period under Saul before the accession of David and others, which would swell the list unduly).
(Some may overlap, and more than one can run together at the same time).
(1) Innocence. Adam unfallen. Paradise enjoyed.
(2) Adam to Noah. The Fall to the Flood.
(3) Noah to Babel. - Some features of Genesis 9 remain unchanged.
(4) Babel to Abraham. The Nations and the Nation.
(5) Abraham to Egypt. The Exodus marks a critical change.
(6) Exodus to Sinai. The covenant 430 years after the promise.
(7) Sinai to Jericho. The forty years wandering.
(8) Jericho to Saul. The land entered.
(9) David to Christ. Here there are subdivisions which we have not noted.
(10) The Earthly Ministry of Christ, His Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension.
(11) Pentecost to Peter in Prison, Acts 2 to 11.
(12) Paul’s First Ministry. The Gentile a wild olive contrary to nature.
(13) Paul’s Prison Ministry. The dispensation of the grace of God and the dispensation of the Mystery.
(14) The Resumption of Pentecost. The seven churches of Revelation 2,3.
(15) The Day of the Lord. The Apocalypse.
(16) The Millennial Kingdom and Revelation 20.
(17) The Period between the end of the Millennium and the Great White Throne.
(18) The End. The goal reached. God all in all.
No significance must be attached to the numbers that stand before any one dispensation. Paul’s Prison Ministry happens to be No. 13 in this list, but the very questionable period from Sinai to Jericho is No. 7. Anyone is at liberty to add further subdivisions as the study of the Word makes such dispensations, administration, or stewardships clear.
A word perhaps is called for in connection with the subheading that suggests that two dispensations may run together. If a dispensation is but another name for an age it is clear that two ‘ages’ cannot run together, but in any one period of time there may be more than one stewardship in exercise. Galatians 2:7-9 makes it clear that Paul had an apostleship and a stewardship that differed from that of Peter, but which was exercised during the self-same period. Or again, Romans 1:18 to 2:29 and Acts 17:25-28 make it clear that at the same period that Israel had the law, the covenants and the service of the tabernacle with all its rich typical teaching, the nations of the earth were under a dispensation of conscience and the witness of the works of creation.
John’s Gospel with its insistence upon the Giver of life, is addressed to those who did not know the meaning of the Hebrew word Rabboni and so could not be Jews. It was written after the whole of Paul’s ministry had ceased, it can be preached to-day without invading the smaller circle of faith encompassed by the Prison Epistles. It will be seen that a mere list of dispensations cannot set forth the whole truth of the matter, and must be used with discrimination. The office of Dispensational Truth is to decide whether any particular doctrine be it command, promise, calling or prophecy - does or does not pertain to any particular individual or company, and the recognition of these varying dispensations is therefore essential if we would walk worthy of our calling, and preach the truth for the present time.
Before attempting to explain or expound any particular portion of Scripture, the following interrogation, which is but the recognition of the fact that there are a succession of dispensations observable in the Bible, will prove a valuable guide.
Is the verse in question in the Old Testament or in the New Testament.?
If in the Old Testament is it in the Law, or the prophets, before or after Abraham, before or after David, etc.?
If in the New Testament is it in the Gospels, if so which, for each gospel has its own peculiar viewpoint (see THE FOUR GOSPELS)?
If in the Acts, is it in the period covered by Pentecost (Acts 2 to 12) by the early ministry of Paul (Acts 13 to 19), by the interval (Acts 20 to 28) or by the Prison Ministry of Paul?
Most objections to the teaching of the Mystery, and most of the confusion that is so evident, are the result of continually harking back to epistles before Acts 28, as for example, a believer may appear to be following and endorsing your teaching concerning the constitution of the Church of the one Body in Ephesians, only to betray confusion by quoting Galatians 3:27-29.